Twitter directs #Coronavirus searches to NHS website as government steps up social media push

Government ramps up engagement with tech firms in bid to promote accurate advice and information 

Credit: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/PA Images

The government has stepped up its efforts to engage with social-media companies as it works to promote accurate advice and information on the Covid-19 outbreak.

Measures taken so far include an agreement with Twitter whereby the social network directs users searching for #Coronavirus to the NHS website, as well as the account run by the Department of Health and Social Care.

The government is also working with TikTok to provide clips offering users advice on handwashing and other prevention measures. The video-sharing platform has also worked with government to incorporate “a search function directing people to National Health Service guidance”, according to prevention and public health minister Jo Churchill.

“The communications team within the department are constantly in contact with all sections of the media – local, national and consumer,” she added, in response to a written parliamentary question from Wigan MP and Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy. 

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“The chief medical officer has hosted several press briefings and, along with departmental ministers, Public Health England senior clinical spokespeople and NHS senior leads, has undertaken many media interviews.”

Churchill added that the government launched a UK-wide advertising and advice programme on 2 February. This work was supplemented by a DHSC-led campaign “new messaging… across print, digital and radio” that was kicked off on 4 March.

UK leadership figures from Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple were also invited to Downing Street this week, where they met with NHS chief executive Simon Stevens, as well as officials from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss with the IT firms “how they can help make sure the public get the most accurate and up-to-date information on coronavirus”.

“The tech companies were invited to discuss and consider their role in modelling and tracking data of the disease, and the impact any government interventions were having upon keeping the public safe,” the government said. “Officials set out the vital role they can play in helping deliver the government’s action plan, supporting the NHS, and helping develop tools we can use across the country as part of our national effort.”

It added: “They stressed how important tech firms were in ensuring communities, including vulnerable people, had access to the most reliable information. This would help individuals and families make informed decisions about how to respond to the virus and keep themselves healthy. In the meeting, the potential extent, scope and impact of disinformation linked to coronavirus was also discussed, and how we can all play a role in tackling this.”

Government’s overall anti-disinformation efforts will now be helmed by a “reactivated” unit within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The unit will bring together existing analysis and monitoring teams that are currently housed in various other Whitehall departments.

The first priority for the DCMS team will be to map the scale and nature of coronavirus-related disinformation, and consider how best it can be countered.

Disinformation is defined as the deliberate and malicious dissemination of false information for personal or political purposes, while misinformation is the inadvertent spreading of falsehoods.


Sam Trendall

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